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Writing and Healing

Exploring the Power of the Written Word in Mental and Physical Well-being

A dear friend of mine had a mild stroke several months ago, while she and her husband were preparing to leave for the airport in anticipation of a long-awaited trip to France. Instead, they traveled via ambulance to the emergency room of our local hospital. Days later, with great effort in retrieving and forming her words, she described for me the anguish she'd felt when, unable to utter a single word, unable to tell them that she felt sure that she'd be OK, she'd watched her husband and children hover near her in the emergency room, obviously frightened that she was dying. My heart ached for her. She's no stranger to pain and anguish, but is a survivor of unrelenting child abuse -- child abuse that necessitated multiple trips to hospital emergency rooms -- and as an adult she has endured many serious illnesses. But through it all she has been a great journal writer with a resilient spirit, and her recovery from the stroke is no exception. Now she can walk and talk and drive and write, and the last time we met at Starbucks for coffee she shared that Louise de Salvo's WRITING AS HEALING: HOW TELLING OUR STORIES TRANSFORMS OUR LIVES is one of her favorite books. It's also one of mine.

Louise de Salvo endured sexual abuse as a child and in the above-mentioned book, when she discusses writing about her memories of abuse, she describes her belief that she was using her writing as a kind of scalpel to cut out the growth festering inside her. "It was an instrument that I had to wield with great care and skill" she wrote, "for the excision to be successful, for the wound to heal. Without telling my story, I thought, I would stay sick; I even might die." Research bears out the wisdom of her insight, as excessive holding back of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, can place people at risk for both major and minor diseases.

James Pennebaker, Ph.D. author of OPENING UP: THE HEALING POWER OF EXPRESSING EMOTIONS  has done considerable research on the subject, and found that translating events into language can actually affect brain and immune functions. The subjects he tested had an increase in germ-fighting lymphocytes in their blood and lower stress levels. Writing was found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and aid people in finding jobs. The more people described positive emotions in their writing, the more likely they were to be healthier afterward. But describing negative emotions either excessively or very little or not at all correlated with poorer health. Describing negative emotions in moderation correlated with improved health. Thus, we profit most from understanding positive and negative aspects.

Pennebaker also wrote that repeatedly confronting an upsetting experience through writing allows for a less emotionally laden assessment of its meaning and impact. Once organized, events become smaller and smaller and therefore easier to deal with. Writing moves us to resolution; it becomes psychologically complete and therefore there's no need to ruminate about it. beyond the trauma.

advises that for expressive writing to be most healing, we need to get beyond our tendency to only vent. The greatest health benefits of writing occur when we write a story with structure, causal explanation, repetition of themes, a balanced narrative, and awareness of a listener's perspective.

Henriette Anne Klauser, Ph.D., in WITH PEN IN HAND, describes writing as a way to pick up the pieces and make them whole again so that we can move on.

All of these viewpoints have certainly born out in my own experience of writing - particularly in writing my memoir. People often ask if writing it was cathartic for me and they're surprised when I say no. I experienced catharsis at times in my therapy. But I began writing my book well after terminating therapy, and what I experienced in the writing of the book was the treasured gift of further integration. Southern author Rosemary Daniel says it best, in THE WOMAN WHO SPILLED WORDS ALL OVER HERSELF:

     "...each time I wrote about my pain, I would feel the
     stitching and restitching inside my brain, as though
     festering tissue was actually being trimmed away and
     sealed over, to at last heal. The longer each book had
     taken to write, the longer had been the revision process,
     and the stronger the fabric of that healing."

Perhaps you're going through a tough time and are feeling drawn to writing. In my work as a therapist I often encourage people to keep a journal or a dream diary, to write letters to themselves or parts of themselves, to free associate on paper, to write down their goals. I might suggest that they take time in the evening to write about what hurts, and also about what's life-giving. When you do take pen to paper you may find that Louise de Salvo's belief that "writing is a very sturdy ladder out of the pit," resonates for you as well, or you may be relieved by the sense of freedom that writing creates, so aptly described to me by my own sister Kaolin when, while working on her new book, TALKING ABOUT RACE,  she proclaimed that "writing is like skating on your own rink." My hunch is that you'll experience both and more, and will soon come up with your own metaphor. Write on!